The Delta Variant, Vaccination, and the Elderly
Many people in this country and around the world, especially the elderly, breathed a sigh of relief when the various COVID-19 vaccines were approved and began to be administered to the public. It seemed that the end of the pandemic was in sight and life would soon return to normal. Then came news of the emergence of new—more dangerous—variants of the virus, and now the pandemic appears to be returning with the latest and most dangerous strain yet, the Delta variant. Because it spreads more easily, acts more quickly, and produces more severe symptoms—and it appears to be slightly more resistant to the vaccines—the restrictions that had been eased earlier are now being brought back in many parts of the country where the pandemic is making a comeback.
Of special concern with the Delta variant is what health officials are calling “breakthrough infections.” A breakthrough infection occurs when a fully vaccinated person become infected and experiences the symptoms that go along with the infection. That is, the virus breaks through the protective barrier created by the vaccine. The protection provided by the vaccine varies from person to person, depending on the state of the individual’s immune system, other health conditions that the person may have, and the person’s age. The elderly are vulnerable to breakthrough infection because the immune system deteriorates with age. Most people who have a breakthrough infection experience only mild symptoms, but those with weakened immune systems may experience more severe symptoms. What is especially concerning about breakthrough infections is, fully vaccinated people with a breakthrough infection can pass the virus on to other fully vaccinated people, even before they start showing any symptoms. Health officials are now recommending that fully vaccinated people continue to follow the masking and social distancing guidelines that they followed before getting fully vaccinated. This does not mean that vaccination is not effective.
Breakthrough infections are now increasing rapidly with the spread of the Delta variant, and this means that the elderly them need to be extra careful to follow all the safety precautions, even if they have been fully vaccinated. The recommendation is, the elderly and those who come in contact with them is: (1) wear a mask (2) maintain social distance; (3) make sure indoor spaces are well ventilated; and (4) avoid spending a long time indoors in crowded spaces.
It is advisable to exercise caution when taking young children to visit elderly grandparents, especially now that children will be returning to school, and are more likely to be exposed to the variant. Children should wear a mask when indoors with their grandparents and should be discouraged from hugging and kissing them. A hug around the waist is relatively safe, but upper body hugs and kisses should be avoided.
In mid-July this year, 24 fully vaccinated residents of a senior care home in Massachusetts tested positive for COVID-19 and had mild symptoms and received treatment. If we go back to our former state of alertness and return to the standard safety precautions previously in place, there is no cause for alarm, and there is every reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future. The key to bringing the pandemic under control is widespread vaccination combined with mask wearing and sensible restrictions that will prevent the spread of the Delta variant.